Consuetudo loquendi est in motu

‘Our manner of speech is in flux’: these are the words of Varro, the first century BC Roman encyclopaedist, as mediated through my slightly loose translation. Varro wasn’t thinking of individuals’ use of language when he wrote this – though, no doubt, his is a point that applies over the course of the life of an individual, just as it does over the course of a language’s life. Instead, he was participating in a highly self-aware Roman discussion about the developing use of the Latin language.

For many people who know some Latin today, it is easy enough to imagine the language as an impressively logical system – of clearly defined grammatical tables, of distinct word endings, and (more generally) of order and rational control. This image of the Latin language is in significant measure a product of the habits of teaching and learning favoured by 19th century educators: hefty Victorian grammatical textbooks are just one tangible artefact of their influence.

What I hadn’t really been aware of before this week was how the Romans themselves imposed considerable (conscious) control over the nature and structure of their language. This comes through in a range of first century BC discussions – in authors like Varro, Cicero and indeed Julius Caesar – of which I’m now aware. And it reflects an older Roman (and Greek) tradition of thinking about language use.

My education in this area has come about through reading Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s Rome’s Cultural Revolution, a text I’ve had on my shelf for several years but which I’ve only just found the time to get into.


Romans of the first century BC were sometimes acutely conscious of linguistic differences in the way Latin was spoken (and written). Just as modern English speakers can effortlessly spot the differences between regional accents, national accents, formal and informal speech (etc), so too ancient Latin users would have spotted similar differences. But what were the boundaries of correct usage in amongst the (perfectly natural) linguistic variety that could be observed?

This is a question, Wallace-Hadrill suggests, that assumes an importance only with Rome’s – and Latin’s – imperial extension in the first century BC: ‘hand in hand with an insistence that others use one’s language is the establishment of authoritative standards by which to lay down what that language is’.

For Cicero, writing in his Brutus on the history of oratory, there was a pure use of Latin which all good orators – and indeed all good speakers of the language – should aim to practise. There was a time, Cicero thinks, when all Romans would speak this pure form of the language as a matter of custom. So what changed? A flood of people of diverse origins, he explains, has entered Rome. They have tainted the language, polluting its proper use!


Cicero’s explanation is strikingly reductive (and prejudiced!) – but it is interesting that he seems to assume that ‘proper’ Latin was only ever spoken at Rome (and that non-Romans were never in command of pure Latinitas). Wallace-Hadrill makes short work of Cicero’s argument, pointing out the myth of ‘purism’ while noting also that ‘purism’ can only be imposed on a language by the imposition of an external authority (e.g. a grammarian!).

Varro, unlike Cicero, was a realist about linguistic change, just as he was about other changes of custom. Old practices can give way to new ones in clothing, building and furniture. Traditional usage in these and other areas has been replaced. The same is true for words. Consuetudo – custom, then (whether linguistic or otherwise), can itself be remade: it is not forever set in stone, as a Cicero might have preferred.

By the end of the first century BC, the power to define consuetudo, when it came to language, seems to have begun to move away from influential patrician figures like Cicero and Varro, who had previously been the key voices in its constitution. From this point, upper class influence on correct Latin usage was no longer to have quite the weight it once did: instead the foremost authorities when it came to defining what was ‘correct’ Latin would soon be professional grammarians. This is an area about which I have more reading to do.

Sewers and Octopodes

In these difficult times, I’ve found there are worse ways to maintain spirits than trying to remember fun moments in the classroom over the past term. It’s disarming to think that teachers could by now have had their last lessons in person with the pupils they’ve taught during the current academic year. Well, below, I’ve tried to record a fun portion of one of my lessons, in which discussion ranged widely – across food and drink, sea creatures, grain supply and Roman sanitation.

My year 7 class and I had been talking briefly about Roman food and drink, and about the grain-heavy diets that many ordinary Romans had. The class had recently learned about garum – Roman fish sauce – and about the Roman fondness for wine, olive oil and various other foods and tipples. We’d had a little help along the way from an amusing episode of the series, ‘What the Romans did for us’, by Adam Hart-Davis.

Images illustrating the preparation of garum (Roman fish sauce), which seems often to have been added to desserts!

‘But what about delicacies?’ someone asked. Good question – so we started a discussion about the sorts of meats and seafoods that ancient Romans might (more occasionally) have eaten.

‘Octopus?’ suggested one class member. Probably not for most people, most of the time, I answered! But I do have a question for you about the octopus. ‘What is its plural?’

‘Octopi!’ This was the answer most of the group felt pretty confident with – especially since they’ve done a good job of learning their 2nd declension Latin noun endings (which have a -us ending in the nominative singular and an -i ending in the nominative plural). But a small smattering of class members tentatively suggested ‘octopuses’: octopi wasn’t the only pick.

An octopus – aka polypus – on a Roman mosaic

Well, I asked, what if neither of those options is strictly accurate? Accurate, that is, if we treat ‘octopus’ as an ancient word. Confused looks.

Good, I said: this can be a little topic for you to do some research on later. Is there an additional possible plural of ‘octopus’ – and what might it be, and why?

The answer, jubilantly reported by some of the pupils in their next lesson, is that because of the Greek (not Latin) roots of octopus, the plural might best be given as octopodes.

They’d done well. Octopus does indeed have Greek roots – but, so it appears, the word doesn’t actually have an ancient provenance. Greeks certainly knew about the cephalopod we call the octopus, but the name they used for this animal was polypous (i.e. many footed creature). It was this word that Romans borrowed to give the Latin word polypus…and this is the word they used to designate the creature we know as the octopus.

It was only much later – in the 16th century. according to our best information – that the word octopus itself starts to appear for the first time, and it appears then in the English language. A nice discussion of this development is available here.

A depiction of a Roman grain transporter ship being loaded

From our rather inconclusive discussion of the octopus (how should you talk about more than one of them?) we turned to start talking about a separate topic relating to Roman diet: the Roman grain supply. This was crucial for Rome’s development and stature as a city during the high period of its empire. In order to feed the vast majority of the city’s inhabitants, emperors would import huge quantities of grain, all the way across the Mediterranean, from North Africa, for ordinary people to eat. It was given out as a hand-out.

Some of the class were shocked by this revelation. ‘Free food. Really?!’ Not exactly free, of course, but to the Roman plebs, it must have felt like it. This in turn set off a conversation about how modern governments don’t really do this sort of thing – and maybe it would be helpful if they did?

I asked the class to reflect on another key area of Roman urban life that they might find surprising: hygiene. Walking into the city of Rome in the 1st or 2nd century AD, I asked, what – perhaps more than anything else – might have imposed itself on your senses. One pupil saw immediately where I was going with this question: ‘the smell’, she said.

I remember reading a passage somewhere in one of Keith Hopkins’ books where he really insists on this point. The smell on the streets of the ancient city would have been ghastly, overpowering, horrific. City dwellers in the developed world today have no point of easy comparison.

But this, I told the class, brings us to another topic you may wish to do some research about: the Roman sanitation and sewage system (particularly the Cloaca Maxima). Despite the toxic stench of their city, the Romans possessed a remarkably advanced sanitation system, featuring underground tunnels and drainage. Without this, the city would surely have smelt a whole lot worse.

A modern view of the interior of the ancient Roman sanitation system, the Cloaca Maxima

I’ve noticed over the course of my time as a teacher that pupils in the 21st century classroom tend to assume that the story of historical development has been a pretty linear one of relentless progress: a sort of whiggish optimism, in other words, is pretty widespread. The history of Roman sanitation, of aqueducts and the provision of running water to urban centres, and of the Roman genius for engineering more generally, is a nice counterpoint here.

In these areas, Romans produced technologies that were not (in Europe, at least) to be matched for many centuries (over a milennium, in fact). With the demise of the Roman empire, some of the technology went out of use altogether, without being replaced by anything superior. Far from it. I’m sure my pupils now have a sense of this, even if they’re not exactly clear (as I myself am not) which word to choose if they want to talk about more than one octopus. Sometimes not even teachers have all the answers.

St Augustine on ancient Troy

Last week was Classics week at school (pictures on the departmental twitter feed here). It was an opportunity to put on a range of events – talks, trips, a quiz, a baking competition etc. – with the aim of building a sense of what the study of the ancient world is and can be about, and why it’s exciting. The theme for the week (proposed by one of my colleagues in the Classics department) was the Trojan War.

This made sense as it’s a theme that dovetails neatly with the special exhibition currently showing at the British Museum on just this topic. And the theme worked well: we were very happy to welcome Dr Simon Pulleyn from UCL to talk to us about some aspects of the depiction of Helen in Homer’s Iliad, as well as about some of the linguistic questions which arise through study of the poem. Over the course of the week, and as with the British Museum exhibits, there was a chance to range widely – looking not just at the poetry of Homer, but at the way the Trojan war has been thought about and understood more broadly through time and space.

I myself started the week with a Monday morning assembly touching on a few of the contexts in which the Iliad has had an important impact. These formed the basis of 3 further talks I gave over the course of the week (possible overkill, I concede, but I couldn’t help myself…).

I looked first at the reception of Homer’s gods in ancient Greece, where the description of his poem as ‘Bible of the Greeks’ is not wholly misleading; at the use made of Homer by the Roman poet Virgil, particularly in connection with his depiction of the emperor Augustus in the Aeneid; at the use of the Iliad in the context of psychological therapy for Vietnam war veterans, as outlined in the brilliant book Achilles in Vietnam, by Jonathan Shay; and at some of the recent retellings of Homer from female perspectives, in books like Margaret Attwood’s Penelopiad and Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls. There is in fact an ancient pedigree for this last sort of writing: we see it most clearly on display in Euripides’ fifth century BC play, The Trojan Women.

By the end of the week, like everyone else, I was ready for a rest. But I’ve been waiting to find a chance to write up a few thoughts about the subject matter of my final talk of the week: this concerned the way St Augustine, in his magnum opus The City of God, writes about the Trojan war, just a few years after the sack of Rome by Visigothic invaders, in the early 5th century AD.

Antonio Rodriguez (1636-91), St Augustine

Augustine wrote at a time when stories of Troy, as presented (in particular) by Homer and Virgil, were coming to be viewed in a new and different light. The Christianisation of the Roman west was by now well underway (it had been more than a century since the accession of the emperor Constantine), and Christian thinkers had for decades now been aiming to recalibrate popular understandings of the shape and significance of Roman – and cosmic – history. Writing the Trojan war out of history (and out of Roman religion) – or at least writing it off –  was part of this process.

For first century BC Roman writers like Virgil and the historian Livy, stories of the Trojan war could occupy a proud place of precedence in their tellings of the origins of Roman history. But this way of situating and explaining the development of Roman history, and indeed world history (in relation to the Homeric tales of Troy) was something that made a good deal less sense for writers inspired by Christianity.

Christian writers tended to see the history of Rome, and indeed the history of the cosmos, in an altogether different light. They wanted to tell historical stories that followed a trajectory featuring not Achilles, Aeneas, Romulus and Remus, but instead tales of the Bible – of Noah, Abraham, Isaac and King David.

Christian history writing, as the great historian of historiography Arnaldo Momigliano emphasises, is profoundly influenced in its most fundamental conceptions by Jewish history writing. The foremost influence over the early Christian historiographical tradition, in fact, was the first century AD Jewish historian Josephus.


Augustine himself was not a historian. But in his City of God – a work of theology – he presents passages of prolonged reflection and argument about historical topics. And, like Christian historians, Augustine is fundamentally uninterested in sustaining older linear narratives of Roman history. He is interested rather in vindicating and championing new, Christian ways of seeing and understanding the past.

His treatment of the Trojan war – to which he turns his attention in book 3 – is a case in point. For Augustine, Homeric accounts of the war at Troy do not count as credible historical records. He is particularly unimpressed by Homer’s Trojan gods, most notably Apollo and Poseidon. Poseidon, he notes, was simultaneously credited with building up the city walls of Troy, and – then – with joining the Greek assault on the city.

Poseidon punishes Trojan bad faith (the bad faith in question being the failure of Laomedon, Priam’s father, to pay the sea god for his help in constructing the original city walls of Troy, as outlined at Il. 21.441f.). Meanwhile, Augustine wonders wryly whether it’s more dangerous to believe in such a god or to let him down. He also wonders why – if Troy’s gods are indeed Rome’s gods, as Roman tradition had maintained – a Trojan act of bad faith was punishable in this way, while the perjurious acts of unscrupulous Roman senators apparently were not.

Augustine mocks the idea that the Homeric gods could have had any serious issue with the adultery of Paris (when he took Helen, Menelaus’ wife). The gods themselves were serial adulterers, he notes. He also dismisses the idea that the leading men of the Roman imperial period could reliably trace their ancestries back to Troy, and indeed to the gods themselves (‘Caesar’, he notes, was ‘convinced that Venus was his ancestress’).

Here he takes issue with the subtle perspective of the first century BC Roman encyclopaedist Varro, who supplies Augustine with much of his raw material in the City of God. In Varro’s eyes, a prominent Roman who constructed his identity with reference to divine Trojan ancestors was making a positive move. It was positive, he thought, because it might make him more energetic in action, more bold in undertaking noble deeds, and more secure within himself. The dangers of hubris, apparently, did not loom large in Varro’s view of things!


But, back to Augustine, whose major query about the Homeric (and Roman) gods was this: why should these gods have been so incapable of protecting Troy, yet so capable of protecting Rome (at least, that is, during its years of imperial greatness)? And what was missing from Troy that Rome had come to possess, so that the gods might favour one city, but not the other? Here, in Augustine’s view, was a key and unanswerable question – and it is a question whose unanswerability (he thought) ought really to undermine in its very foundations the traditional, and rather naive, Roman religious worldview.

Augustine has a final point about Troy. He notes that the Roman general Fimbria, in the early 1st century BC, brutally razed a rebuilt latter-day Troy, completely destroying the city and ordering the slaughter of all its inhabitants. But wait: was this not the city that had given the Romans their gods? Why, then, should a Roman general destroy a city whose gods (which were also his own) ought to have been protecting it? The flawed logic of Roman theology is, for Augustine, exposed here all too clearly.

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A depiction of Gaius Flavius Fimbria, whose exploits are first recorded by Livy

In Augustine, the tragic fate of ancient Troy, and the stories told by Homer, are not subjected to thoroughgoing scrutiny – historical, literary, archaeological – in the ways characteristic of modern scholarship. Augustine’s exploration is motivated rather by a desire to dislodge a theological perspective whose weakness he feels confident in identifying. He does not accept that ‘the gods’ acted as protectors either of Troy or of Rome in its imperial heyday.

Even in his doubts, however, Augustine remains very much a theologian: he does not wish to suggest that no god can act as the protector and champion of a people through history. Indeed, his contention is that the rise of Rome, and the city’s greatness, are things that have in fact happened under the oversight of the Christian God, rather than the gods of Troy. Given the recent sacking of Rome, this might seem (and might have seemed also in the 5th century) a quite remarkable point of view for a Christian theologian to advance.

Featured image (top) is Destruction, from Thomas Cole’s series, The Course of Empire.

Favourite Reads of 2019 (2)

(Continued from previous)

5 Josephine Kamm, How Different from Us: a Biography of Miss Buss and Miss Beale


A fascinating read about the lives of two Victorian educators, Frances Mary Buss and Dorothea Beale. I discuss some of the highlights of the book in another post here.

4 Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity


Another book about which I’ve written already (here): Nussbaum, as the title of the book intimates, wants to redirect the focus of education in the humanities back onto the cultivation of humanity itself (and she does so with reference to some of the key arguments in ancient philosophy). The book was written in the 90s but its arguments felt relevant – perhaps even urgent – at a time when the intellectual tenor and human sensitivity of our public discourse isn’t exactly the best it could be.

3 Isobel Hurst, Victorian Women Writers and the Classics: the Feminine of Homer


This is a bit of a cheat – as, so far, I’ve only read the first 2 chapters. However, it’s already given me some clear glimpses of a whole area of history and research re: the classical world (19th century women’s reception) that I’ve not thought much about before. It’s also beautifully written.

2 Martial, Epigrams 


I hadn’t previously appreciated just how racy, funny and exuberant Martial’s epigrams are. My (inaccurate) memory of studying a selection of them many years ago was that they offered little more than a pretty unremarkable window into everyday Roman social reality. That selection must have omitted a lot of good stuff – and what sort of ‘social reality’ is it that we get in Martial, anyway? I’m looking forward to reading some of the Epigrams with students over the course of the upcoming term.

1 Giorgio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis


Another beautifully written book (which I blogged about earlier this year here). I’d first tried to read this novel a couple of years ago, but couldn’t get into it then. This year, however, it stood out as the novel that (for various reasons) it made sense to read to my mother at her bedside during her final illness. She enjoyed it immensely – as did I, and its story (and the memory of reading it) will always hold a profound meaning for me.

Favourite reads of 2019 (1)

As it’s the end of the year, a number of people have started to list their favourite reads of the past 12 months. I thought I’d do the same – mainly because I’ve read some great books this year – though with the caveat that none of these books was actually published in 2019… I will have to do better at staying up to date by this time next year.
10. Christopher Stray, Living Word: WHD Rouse and the Crisis of the Classics in Edwardian England
A fascinating portrayal of the life and career of an Edwardian classicist and headmaster (of the Perse school, Cambridge), it’s a quick read. For me, there was also the interesting connection that Rouse, who pioneered the Direct Method of teaching Latin, worked earlier in his career at Bedford school (where I worked myself until this past term).
9. Russell Jacoby, The Last intellectuals: American culture in the age of academe
For anyone interested in academic life and campus culture changes (and disputes… I want to avoid the word ‘wars’…) in recent decades, this should prove a thought-provoking read. Jacoby’s is a sane, interesting voice in a debate where all too often the only arguments in town are either from the reactionary corner or the extreme left.
8. Keith Thomas, In Pursuit of Civility: Manners & civilisation in early modern England
I’ve tried one of Keith Thomas’ books – Religion and the Decline of Magic – before, but couldn’t get into it. This was a different story altogether. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the moral world of everyday social interactions and ideas of civility (and politeness) in 18th century England. Thomas was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour in this year’s new year’s honours list.
7. Horace, Satires 1 (w commentary by Emily Gowers)
I first read Horace as a teenager and it’s been great spending some time with him again in recent months. In the Satires, I like his social commentary and his complex literary persona, but also his humanity. Emily Gowers’ commentary is brilliant and added hugely to my understanding of the text.
6. Noel Annan, The Dons: Mentors, Eccentrics, Geniuses
Another book about the history of university education – and one perhaps worth reading for its clipped, rhythmical prose alone. There are plenty of entertaining anecdotes revealing the eccentric behaviour of dons over the past two centuries. My favourite anecdotes concerned the Victorian scientist William Buckland and his son (who, as a child, collected exotic animals in his college rooms). On one occasion, the dean of the college is reported to have admonished him: ‘Mr Buckland, I hear you keep a bear in college; well, either you or the bear must go’.

Questions, Answers and the Teaching of History

What is it, above all, that a good teacher of history is aiming to do? Is it mainly a question of successfully imparting correct or relevant information? Most, I imagine, would say that more – much more – is at stake than this. Is it, then, primarily about developing in pupils a capacity to see patterns of cause and effect, thus enabling them to isolate the important influence or set of factors which lies behind a significant event or occurrence?

What, though, about the interrogation of source materials and the development of a sense of the shape of the surviving documentary record: is it a focus on this, and the development of a keen awareness of its nature, scope and deficiencies – together with an ability to probe and analyse the evidence – that should constitute the key focus of a good teacher’s activity? The chief aim of the teacher, from this point of view, might be to produce pupils with a keen eye for detail, and an ability to shoot down overly-ambitious theories which claim too much on the basis of what’s (not) there.

Maybe the good teacher will emphasise also that reconstruction is the historian’s primary goal. If so, then their main focus is likely be on developing pupils’ capacity to make excellent use of the medium of prose; on knowing what it is to communicate details about the past attractively and cogently, certainly; but with a sense also, perhaps, that a big aim of historical writing might be to perform something like a necromancy. For the historian as necromancer, successful writing will somehow manage to bring back into being for readers things that have died and disappeared. (Why, after all, should this be an aim only of historical novelists?).

But perhaps the truth is that history teaching that really hits the mark, and indeed much of the best historical writing too, will contain something of all of these elements.

I’ve been thinking about these issues over the last couple of days chiefly because I’ve been re-reading the autobiography of RG Collingwood. Collingwood was a renowned philosopher and Roman historian. His autobiography is a subtle and amiable account of its author’s experiences of learning, teaching and writing in Oxford in the first half of the twentieth century. Collingwood was fully aware of the idiosyncratic character of many of his philosophical views, as seen in contrast with prevailing trends among his philosophical and Oxford contemporaries. This only adds to the book’s interest.


One area in which Collingwood’s views became well-known was his philosophy of history – an area of philosophical enquiry neglected by many of his colleagues.* And Collingwood is particularly interesting, I think, on the topic of historical method, on what it is that historians should try to do when they approach the past.

For Collingwood, it is all a matter of asking the right questions. In short, the idea is that dealing well with historical evidence – Collingwood uses the example of an archaeological dig – is all about refining the questions one poses in relation to it. At a dig, you might begin with a question like ‘was there a Flavian occupation on this site?’ That question can then be divided into sub-questions, like: ‘are these Flavian sherds and coins mere strays, or were they deposited in the period to which they belong?’ And so on.


In Collingwood’s discussion, the intellectual activity of the historian in formulating problems and solutions is crucial: the historian must pose good questions, and refine them and answer them well, while making due allowance for any problems presented by the evidence, at the same time as they offer their argument.

What I particularly like about this way of seeing the business of historical research is that the onus is very much on the historian to generate their own avenues of approach, their own web of questions (and – hopefully good – answers). It is a way, that is, to cultivate subjectivity and a habit of free enquiry, informed by one’s own growing sense of how to approach the material.

This, I think, is what successful history teaching can be about. Pupils should find that they have been invited into a world of free-spirited debate and enquiry, in which individuals can begin to form and articulate their own ideas about matters of interest and substance. The centrality of posing, refining and answering one’s own questions in that process matters.

At the same time, Collingwood’s approach isn’t in the slightest complacently presentist, in the sense that it requires the historian actually to engage with the thoughts and ideas of past people seriously. The historian should try to see these ideas in context and make sense of them in their own right. It simply won’t do, he thinks, to dismiss past thoughts on the basis of contemporary opinion or prejudice and (thus) to rule out their importance for understanding past action and behaviour.

For Collingwood, then, doing history is a fundamentally dialogical activity. He sees the process of posing and refining questions in relation to the past as an important ongoing activity, not only for the writing of good history, but also for the ongoing development of the historian as a rational being. This is a point of principle I find myself happy to agree with.

*Many, though not all. Collingwood acknowledges the influence of the philosopher TH Green in this area. He mentions too how many of Green’s pupils – including politicians such as Asquith and the social reformer and historian Arnold Toynbee – made a point of applying the ideas they had learned from their university philosophy tutor in the context of their future careers. Green was known to many as a Hegelian, though Collingwood does not call him this. Collingwood does however describe the widespread opposition to Green’s work among Oxford philosophers of his own time (‘Hegelian’ ideas were, for the most part, successfully repelled at Oxford).  He also indicates his own more sympathetic view of Green and some of his disciples. These descriptions feel measured and patient, and perhaps overly so. I suspect Collingwood is culpable of characteristically English understatement at times.

The State is Like a Ship: on Plato’s Critique of the Athenian Democracy

In Book 6 of Plato’s Republic, in the context of a damning appraisal of the way the democracy at Athens works, Socrates compares the Athenian state to a ship. The owner of the ship, he says, is big and strong – but he is hard of hearing, shortsighted and not much of a navigator. The ship’s crew are in persistent disarray. They recklessly gorge themselves on the ship’s resources, while disagreeing with one another about who should be in charge on board, with each sailor believing he should be the captain (despite having neither experience nor training). Being the captain, the sailors maintain, requires no special skill (Gk. techne).

In this analogy, the citizen population of Athens are the owners of the ship. In Plato’s candid assessment, they are politically powerful but lacking in governmental acumen and intellectual ability. With them in charge, the Athenian ship is not going to cut a clear, sensible or efficient path.

The crew of the ship, meanwhile, are the disputatious demagogues and politicians who hold sway in Athens’ political assembly, each vying for influence and power over their fellow citizens.

Plato wants his fellow Athenians to undertake a thoroughgoing revaluation of the way things on board work. Rather than looking to the ship’s owner, or to themselves, he thinks the sailors on board the Athenian ship should look instead to a marginal, currently powerless figure whose quiet presence on board is regrettably overlooked: this figure he calls the ‘true navigator’. This true navigator is a person of great learning, wisdom and moral fibre: a philosopher.

A bust of Plato

My doctoral supervisor once told me of how she had been campaigning to try to get philosophers onto many of the various university decision-taking panels and boards she had contact with. Decisions rely on philosophical judgments: even if philosophers present on decision-making panels weren’t themselves making such judgments, might they nonetheless be able to advise those who were about philosophical issues and questions which arose in the course of a given set of deliberations?

I don’t know if this argument ever gained any traction but it is a good example of how – in our society too – philosophers’ voices are usually pretty marginal to the way things in the arena of practical affairs proceed.* Indeed, we even use the word ‘philosophical’ in everyday speech to describe people who have a calm attitude in the face of disappointment: in common parlance and the popular imagination, then, being ‘philosophical’ is certainly not something you openly do when successfully pulling the levers of worldly power.

Plato’s fellow Athenians would also have been surprised by his suggestion that philosophers, of all people (and whether they could lay claim to being true philosophers or not), are the best placed group of people to run a city-state. Philosophers at Athens, by Plato’s own admission, were not the most popular of individuals. In the estimation of the majority of Athens’ ordinary citizen population, he himself suggests, philosophers served no self-evidently useful purpose.

On one level, this is easy enough to understand: philosophers in ancient Athens tended to earn their livings by presiding over the higher education of a select group: the wealthy young men of the city. An education in philosophy was thus an education in a form of high culture. If most people found themselves able to make do without it, just how valuable to them could it be?**

Raphael’s famous depiction of philosophy in action at Athens. Depicted in the centre are Plato and Aristotle. Not all Athenians had Plato’s high view of the capacity of philosophy to have a positive influence on public life.

Plato doesn’t offer anything like the sort of sociological explanation for most ordinary Athenians’ remoteness from philosophy that I have just presented. Instead, he offers a moralistic explanation. In the Republic, philosophers are marginal figures in Athens simply because most people don’t approach them in the right spirit.

Philosophers are like doctors of the soul, Plato says (Rep. 489b), using a further analogy. The ‘sick’ man should have the wherewithal to go to the door of these doctors: it’s certainly not incumbent on the doctors to go around canvassing for their patients! What ordinary Athenians ought to do, Plato thinks, is to recognise their own dire need of good politicians – they are sick, after all – and to respond accordingly (by knocking on the doors of the philosophers in their midst).

I can almost find in this passage a humorous patrician hauteur (the hauteur is clearly there; the humour just possibly). The idea is that the less well-educated ought simply to recognise their need for intellectual instruction from the neighbours they perceive as effete and unworldly and then take steps to address it. This is an idea that is certainly of a piece with the picture sketched in the analogy to the ship: there the sailors need to acknowledge their own reckless and grasping behaviour if they are ever to stand a chance of benefiting from the wisdom of the navigator on board.

The analogy of the ship thus forms part of Plato’s broader argument, but it encapsulates many of his key points on politics in general – on the state of Athenian society, on the inadequacy of democracy as a form of government, and on the nature of the alterations to it that he would like to see. To what extent might these assessments, particularly in the form in which they are outlined in the analogy of the ship, have been convincing to his fellow Athenians?

A very brief answer here might be that, if they had cared to reflect on it, Plato’s analogy would likely have seemed a rather loaded one. Ancient ships would indeed have had just one captain – but democracy in ancient Athens plainly didn’t have just one officially recognised leadership figure, even if a figure like Pericles might emerge periodically as a particularly important political influencer. The fact that modern representative democracies do have officially recognised overall leadership figures – whether e.g. presidents or prime ministers – represents just one clear point of contrast with democracy at Athens.

The analogy of the ship arguably allows Plato to make his argument that only very few people should be able to control the state just a bit more effectively. He manages to insinuate that Athenian ships – a large number of which would have been involved in their navy, a much celebrated force which provided the city with its political and military strength – function so effectively precisely by using a non-democratic (and very hierarchical) model. Leading figures in the Athenian army and navy were not selected by lot for their posts (and yet they – mostly – performed their roles to the satisfaction of their fellow citizens, while presiding over a flourishing institution). This was exceptional in Athens: most public positions involved selection by lot.

A replica Athenian trireme, the key ship in the Athenian navy

Many Athenians would not, we can guess, have shared Plato’s damning assessment of the limited capacities of the owner of the ship, or the sailors on board, in his analogy. And as I have suggested, by Plato’s own admission they would have baulked at the idea that highly-skilled philosophers were the right people to have in charge of their political affairs.

This is not to dismiss tout court the potential of Plato’s analogy to appeal to his readers. Equally, it seems unlikely to me that in offering his criticisms of the workings of Athens’ democracy, Plato was mounting a serious attempt to convert all of his fellow citizens to his point of view.***

*At least, that is, on a surface level. The ideas and/or influence of philosophers, in one form or another, often lie hidden and unacknowledged within the moral reasoning people employ.

**One group of teachers – the sophists – had a short and effective answer to this question: it will enable those who learn it to argue well and make convincing points in public meetings of the democratic assembly. Plato himself regarded this as charlatanism: doing philosophy, for him, was emphatically not about learning how to make popular arguments.

***This post was written to accompany an earlier post on Plato’s political philosophy: Democracy and the Totalitarian Threat: from Plato to Popper via Arginusae.